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The Del Mccoury Band

The Company We Keep

(Sugar Hill; US: 12 Jul 2005; UK: Available as import)

Stunning Timeless Wisdom... and Some Kick-ass Hoedowns

It is tempting to say that Del McCoury is giving us the benefit of his timeless wisdom on this record, which is up there with Marty Stuart’s Souls’ Chapel for best country record of the year… but it wouldn’t be true. Del only co-wrote three of the 14 songs here, and I have no idea if it was the lyrics part or the music part. Most of the wisdom here comes from people who don’t have bands or decades-long fame in the field of bluegrass music.

And the songs are not really all that deep, ultimately. Only Gary Nicholson’s beautiful “Fathers and Sons”—truly one of the best-written songs of the last 20 years—stands out as something that one can apply to one’s life. The rest are about everyday things: digging and / or hating nature (“Mountain Song”, “When Fall’s Coming Down”); the evilness and / or goodness of love (“Eyes That Won’t Meet Mine”, “Untamed”); Jesus being good for children and other living things (“I Never Knew Life”); stuff like that.

Oh, and how Del is just a big ol’ silly guitar-playin’ “Never Grow Up Boy”. And how you need to chill the eff out and be happy in your own skin, in “If Here Is Where You Are”. Can’t forget those. And then we have the massive improbability of the opening track, “Nothin’ Special”, in which Del sings a fable about not wanting fancy things, because love is all he needs, except it’s really how love is all she needs, because he sings this song from the point of view of a woman. Jeez, maybe this is kind of deep after all, although it might just be the way he sings: sweet and rowdy, lovely and amazing, wailing like a very nice banshee.

Adding to the general theme of “Bluegrass album as rousing lovely Zen sermon” are the OMG WTF hot-stuff breakdowns by Del’s band, which is mostly led at this point by his son Ronnie, a mandolin picker of great skill and subtlety. (Also in the band are other brother Rob on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle, and Mike Bub on bass. Everyone sings when they need to.) Even if one does not especially like bluegrass music, there is nothing about this band that does not cook with hotness. This is demonstrated best on the instrumental “Seventh Heaven”, but that’s only because one is not distracted by the high lonesome harmonies, which are in full effect on every other song. This band crackles with non-showoffy finesse—or, rather, just the right amount of showoffiness. Because there’s nothing wrong with a divebombing mandolin run followed by a short sharp shock of fiddle, double-quick switchbacks and turnarounds at the last second, shifts in tempo that you don’t see coming until it’s just too late. Because then, you see, you’re already in love with a record.

I hope Del McCoury is watching what he eats, living right, taking his anti-oxidants, all that stuff. Because he’s on a late-career roll that is setting a new standard for what can be accomplished by bluegrass country pop music, and it’s kind of exhilarating to hear him work.


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